Action urged for SC's mentally ill inmates

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 16, 2014 

— South Carolina mental health advocates are urging the state prison system to follow a judge’s order and to draw up a detailed plan within 180 days to reform the S.C. Department of Corrections mental illness programs – even if Corrections appeals the judge’s decision.

“They have to have a plan to make things happen,” said Bill Lindsey, the executive director of the S.C. chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the state’s largest mental health advocacy group.

“The judge has put a lot of time and effort and considered so many things in coming up with what plan he wanted Corrections to do – he was very thorough,” said Gloria Prevost, executive director for the S.C. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, one of the plaintiffs in the Corrections lawsuit.

On Jan. 8, Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley issued a 45-page order including his findings in a lawsuit over treatment of mentally ill inmates in the state prison system. The suit was originally filed in 2005, and a five-week, non-jury trial was held in 2012.

In his decision, Baxley gave the Department of Corrections 180 days to prepare a detailed plan to remedy the situation in 11 areas.

“Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the S.C. Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care,” Baxley wrote. “... Hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”

Asked Thursday if Corrections would follow the judge’s order to draw up a detailed plan in 11 specific areas, a spokesman replied in an email: “We will exercise the right to appeal this order; however we will continue to improve our efforts to improve the health care for mental health inmates.”

In the email, the spokesman said the agency is committed improving programs and facilities for mentally ill prisoners.

Ongoing efforts include new initiatives to have the S.C. Department of Mental Health evaluate Corrections’ mental health policies and procedures, to work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to strengthen officers’ training and to expand a contract for additional psychiatrists, the email said.

State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said he met with Corrections director Bryan Stirling on Thursday afternoon and came away convinced that Corrections is taking action on a number of fronts, including a shift away from punitive measures for mentally ill prisoners when they don’t behave.

Fair pointed out that last spring, the Legislature appropriated an additional $1 million for mental health programs in the prison system and more might be in the offing this year.

As for Corrections obeying the judge’s order to develop a specific detailed plan within 180 days, Fair said, “I don’t find that offensive at all.” In fact, the actions Corrections is taking now should in many respects dovetail with what the reformers want, the senator said.

Fair said the current situation is fluid and he’s not even sure Corrections will appeal the judge’s order. “They are doing everything they can afford to do, and everything they are funded by the General Assembly to do, and they don’t even know what some of those things are going to be yet.”

In his order, Baxley, 57, of Hartsville, cited numerous individual cases as evidence of “a system that is inherently flawed in many respects, understaffed, underfunded and inadequate.”

The judge called the case “the most troubling” of the 70,000 matters he has handled in his 14 years on the bench.

Since Baxley’s decision, Gov. Nikki Haley has said publicly that many of the judge’s findings are outdated. She did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Around the state, mental health advocates say Baxley’s decision reflects current prison conditions.

Joy Jay, executive director of Mental Health America of South Carolina, said Thursday that Baxley’s order was correct when it said that purported improvements “touted by the department are neither reasonable, timely nor effective.”

In Greenville, Paton Blough, a mental health advocate who had started an Internet site, heard about the judge’s ruling and Corrections’ decision to appeal and launched an online and paper petition drive.

The petition, now signed by more than 200 people, asks Stirling and Gov. Haley not to appeal.

“The responsible move would be to use your powers to drop the appeal of this ruling and use your influence to make these necessary changes. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars on lawyers fighting for the status quo, please consider dropping your stance and working to reform the Department of Corrections from within,” the petition says.

About 10 state lawmakers have signed the appeal or indicated they will sign it, Blough said.

One lawmaker who signed the petition is Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville.

“They (Corrections) should go ahead and come up with a plan,” Hamilton said.

Some law enforcement officials are watching to see if Corrections and the governor will delay drawing up the kind of detailed plan Baxley outlined in his ruling.

“Without the right kind of treatment, we have to deal with these individuals once they get back on the street,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told The State.

Last October, Lott said, he was attacked on a public street by an escaped mentally disturbed state prison inmate.

“He was walking down the street, blocking traffic, and I stopped, and the next thing I knew, he started accusing me of killing his mother, and he attacked me,” Lott said.

“It’s not a crime to be mentally ill, but he hadn’t received treatment,” said Lott.

Baxley’s decision has gotten national attention.

Last week, theatlantic.com ran a story headlined “When good people do nothing: the appalling state of South Carolina’s prisons.” The story highlighted the portions of Baxley’s decision that dealt with what Baxley called a lack of action for some 15 years by the state to upgrade its treatment of mentally ill prisoners.”

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